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Surviving Television Advertising


Alvin Poussaint, M.D. and Susan Linn, Ed.D.

"I want this."


"No, we're not buying a DoomStar Caped Marauder today."


"But I need it."


"I said NO. That's not what we're here for. Put it back right now!"


Loud voices. Loud wails. Another December afternoon in the toy store aisles.

Children are exposed to commercials all year, but around the December holidays the barrage of television advertising intensifies and children become extra vulnerable to the pressure. Our sense of moderation is pitted against bright, talented ad-agency teams devoted to convincing kids they can't live without a certain action figure, computer game, or pair of brand-name sneakers.

Many children expect that the holiday season will bring them every gift on their wish list. As parents, we may unwittingly nurture this hope even as we try to balance our checkbooks. The result can be disastrous -- disappointed kids and guilty parents.

Don't dismiss ad power
What can we do to minimize the effects of television advertising? First, we need to stop underestimating its reach and power. Did you know that:

  • Children watch an average of 24 hours of television a week.
  • Children's programming on commercial television devotes up to 12 hours to advertising.
  • On average, children will see 576 or more commercials each week.

Most of today's commercials are well-designed, carefully tested, and slickly produced. They're often more appealing to children than the programs they sponsor.

What can parents do?
From the moment your kids begin watching television, talk with them about the purpose and techniques of television advertising:

  • Help young children make the distinction between the purpose of an ad (to sell) and the purpose of a program (to entertain or teach). Explain that the people who made the commercials are trying very hard to sell something. Even three- and four-year-olds can have fun guessing what the ad is trying to sell.
  • As children get a little older, talk with them about the feelings, or state of mind, each ad tries to evoke. "The people who made this ad want you to think that these sneakers will make you play basketball like Michael Jordan. Do you think a pair of shoes can do that?" Make a game out of guessing the underlying messages of the commercials.
  • Talk honestly with kids about the feelings commercials raise in you. "I'm tempted to buy that makeup because I'd like to be that beautiful." "Those hamburger commercials make junk food look soooo good to me." "Even though I know in my head that none of those products will really do those things, sometimes I find myself believing they will."

Several organizations are working to control advertising on television. The Children's Television Act of 1990 limited advertising on children's programs to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. This bill was passed because of lobbying on the part of children's advocacy organizations and parents.

And don't minimize the importance of expressing your concern directly to advertisers. They are far more inclined to listen -- and respond -- than networks or television stations. Many have websites that make this kind of communication easy.

A holiday gift for children
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts you can give your children this holiday season is to help them set limits on their commercial consumption. Children don't always have to accompany you on holiday shopping expeditions. If you feel overwhelmed by the array of products beckoning you to buy them, remember that children have even fewer defenses.

Talk honestly with your children about the choices you make. Discuss what other holiday activities you can enjoy that reflect your family's values. These conversations will help children cope successfully with a consumer-driven world in which -- for many people -- pure materialism has become the new religion


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